Validating potential toxicity assays to assess petroleum hydrocarbon toxicity in polar soil



Potential microbial activities are commonly used to assess soil toxicity of petroleum hydrocarbons (PHC) and are assumed to be a surrogate for microbial activity within the soil ecosystem. However, this assumption needs to be evaluated for frozen soil, in which microbial activity is limited by liquid water (θliquid). Influence of θliquid on in situ toxicity was evaluated and compared to the toxicity endpoints of potential microbial activities using soil from an aged diesel fuel spill at Casey Station, East Antarctica. To determine in situ toxicity, gross mineralization and nitrification rates were determined by the stable isotope dilution technique. Petroleum hydrocarbon-contaminated soil (0–8,000 mg kg−1), packed at bulk densities of 1.4, 1.7, and 2.0 g cm−3 to manipulate liquid water content, was incubated at −5°C for one, two, and three months. Although θliquid did not have a significant effect on gross mineralization or nitrification, gross nitrification was sensitive to PHC contamination, with toxicity decreasing over time. In contrast, gross mineralization was not sensitive to PHC contamination. Toxic response of gross nitrification was comparable to potential nitrification activity (PNA) with similar EC25 (effective concentration causing a 25% effect in the test population) values determined by both measurement endpoints (400 mg kg−1 for gross nitrification compared to 200 mg kg−1 for PNA), indicating that potential microbial activity assays are good surrogates for in situ toxicity of PHC contamination in polar regions. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2012;31:402–407. © 2011 SETAC